Charles Richmond Henderson.

Modern methods of charity; an account of the systems of relief, public and private, in the principal countries having modern methods online

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dealing with the helpless poor, however, is marked by the Act of
1 55 1. This act directed that in order to provide for "the impotent,

* For this reason Ashley calls this act the "real commencement" of the Poor
Law. See Ashley's Economic History, pp. 333, 337, vol. II.

" Nobles, prelates and friars, however, were exempt from this prohibition of
private almsgiving. For the provisions of the act as a whole see Nicholl's History
of the English Poor Law, pp. 121-125, vol. I.

'In 1547 it was enacted that a sturdy beggar might be made a slave for two
years, and if he ran away a slave for life.



feeble, and lame, who are poor in very deed," two or more collectors
of alms were to be appointed in each parish, who were to make lists
of the poor to whom grants were to be made. These collectors as
well as the clergy of the parish were to "gently exhort and admon-
ish," all parishioners to contribute according to their means. If any
parishioner refused to pay what was expected of him, the bishop of
the diocese was to exhort and reprove him.

It is evident that throughout this period the relief of the poor was
still considered a function of the Church. The interferences of the
Government in poor-relief were mainly on the side of the repression
of vagrancy and mendicity, which were considered civil matters.
Other interferences were designed largely to aid and guide the
Church in the performance of its important function. But the civil
authority was not used to enforce this part of the legislation save in
rare instances ; thus the amounts assessed for the support of the poor
by the collectors mentioned in the last paragraph, could not be en-
forced except by ecclesiastical censure.^

3. The Poor Laws of Elizabeth. — Early in the reign of Eliza-
beth (1563) an attempt was made to increase the amount of the
funds raised for relief, by directing the bishops to bind over all
who refused to pay the amounts assessed by the parish collectors
to appear before the justices at quarter sessions, who should assess
their contributions at such sums as they thought reasonable. This
is the first instance in which we have the authority of the Govern-
ment used to enforce the collection of alms, and so an approach to
a compulsory poor rate levied by civil authorities.

It soon became evident that the Church could no longer satis-
factorily perform its ancient function of collector and dispenser of
relief. Gradually, through numerous acts, the whole system of relief
was transferred from the ecclesiastical to the civil authorities. In
1572 an act" was passed to appoint collectors and also overseers of
the poor in each parish who should tax the inhabitants "to such
weekly charge" as there was need. In 1576 it was enacted that a
stock of wool, flax, iron, and other stuff should be kept in each town
by the collectors and governors of the poor, on which they might be
set at work. If any poor person, who was able-bodied, refused to

* The best work on this period as well as on the Elizabethan period of Poor
Law History is Miss E. M. Leonard's Early History of English Poor-Relief.
' 14 Elizabeth.



work, he was to be sent to a house of correction. And the act
further provided that the funds necessary for all these purposes
should be raised by taxation. Other enactments followed, and in
1597 something like an organic poor law was attempted. The ap-
pointment of overseers of the poor in each parish was provided for,
who were to have charge of relief and raise by taxation the sums nec-
essary for relief or the purchase of material for labor, while begging
either by license or without was forbidden.

These acts culminated in the famous statute of 1601 (43 Eliza-
beth), which has remained to this day the foundation of English
Poor Law. This great act was but an elaboration of the principles
and machinery worked out in the experience of the preceding forty
years. Indeed, the Act of 1597^ contained all of the essential pro-
visions of the statute of 1601, which, nevertheless, deserves the promi-
nence given to it by all writers upon the Poor Law, as it represents
the final form given the Poor Law by Elizabethan legislation.

From the standpoint of our much more complex social evolution,
the main provisions of the law of 1601 seem exceedingly simple.
It divided the recipients of relief into three classes : the able-bodied,
those unable to work, and children. For the first, work was to be
furnished, and to this end stores of flax, hemp, wool, iron, and other
stuff were to be provided by the overseers. Refusal to work on the
part of an able-bodied person was to be punished by the stocks or im-
prisonment. For those unable to work, necessary relief was to be
provided, but only one sort of relief is commended, namely, main-
tenance in almshouses. Children, parents, and grandparents were
also made liable for the support of this class. Dependent children
were to be cared for by apprenticing them out — the boys till they
were twenty-four and the girls till they were twenty-one, or married.

The funds for poor-relief were to be raised by a tax, which the
overseers were to levy and collect weekly, or otherwise, from every
possessor of lands, houses, or tithes in the parish "in such competent
sums as they shall think fit." If a parish were overburdened by its
poor rate, the other parishes of the same hundred or county were to
"rate in aid.""

^ See Miss Leonard's comparison between the two acts, Early History of Eng-
lish Poor-Relief, pp. 134, 135.

^ That is, wealthy parishes vvere to tax themselves to aid the poorer parishes
of tha same county or hundred.


The administration of the poor-relief, as before, was left to the
parish and was managed by two or more overseers of the poor who
were to be nominated in every parish by the justices of the peace
in Easter week. The supervision of the administration of the Poor
Law was left to the justices of the peace.

Concerning the Poor Law of Elizabeth, there have been many
opinions. Some have considered it to be "a perfect model of what
all Poor Laws ought to be;"^ others have thought it a failure. A
saner judgment would seem to be that it was adapted to the situation
of the time, though by no means a model for all time. That it was
admirably fitted to the then existing social and political condition of
England, is shown by the fact that it worked well with few altera-
tions for over a century and a half. Being the outcome of long
experience, it necessarily rested upon some principles of universal
validity ; and these principles were rightly emphasized by the reform-
ers of 1834. But to recognize this is different from finding in it a
model for all time ; it rather accords with the view that the law of
1601 marks but one stage, and that an early one, of a process of
evolution still incomplete.

4. The Settlement Law of Charles IL — By the laws of
Elizabeth the parish was made responsible practically for all who
became destitute within its borders. But, as Aschrott remarks,- the
time was not ripe for this provision, and, hence, it was the first in the
law of 1601 to be altered. This alteration came in the year 1662
in what is known as the Settlement Act. This act restricted the ob-
ligation of the parish to relieve destitution to those who had a legal
domicile within its borders. As title for the acquisition of a legal
domicile were named birth, proprietorship of land or industry, so-
journ, service, or apprenticeship. Aloreover, at the complaint of the
overseers, the justices might within forty days of any person's com-
ing to live in a strange parish, order him to be removed back to his
own place of settlement, unless he could give security to the new
parish that he would not become a charge upon it ; that is, those who
had no legal settlement in a parish might be removed from it, not only
in case of indigence, but also if there were a probability of their be-
coming indigent.

^ See The English Poor Laws, by Miss Sophia Lonsdale.

^ Art. Armengesetzgebung in Grossbritannien in Handworterbuch der Staats-
wissenschaftcn. Zweite Auflage, 1898.


The effect of this act was practically to bind the laboring classes
to the soil. First passed by the reactionary cavalier Parliament of
Charles 11. and reenacted by succeeding Parliaments, it harked back
to the efforts made after the freeing of the serfs to confine the laborer
to the place of his birth. The motive of the act was, of course, to
protect rich parishes from the influx of the poor from the poorer
parishes. But all parishes made equally selfish use of it to hinder
all migration of those without means, through vigorous exercise of
the power of expulsion. The mobility of labor being thus destroyed,
the growth of industry was stopped, the laboring classes impov-
erished by lack of employment, and the poor rates consequently in-
creased. Thus the results of the law were disastrous to rich and poor
alike. Nevertheless, subsequent legislation aggravated these condi-
tions by making the acquisition of a new domicile still more difficult.
Birth and apprenticeship were made practically the only way in
which a settlement could be acquired. Not until the year 1795 did
any substantial amelioration of the settlement law come about. Then
expulsion from the parish was made permissible only when the person
in question was actually dependent, and not then if a justice judged
the person unfit to travel.

5. The Rise of the Workhouse. — In 1691 an act was passed
to secure a better administration of relief funds. It had been found
that the overseers were often careless, if not partial, in their adminis-
tration of the funds. It was therefore ordered that a register should
be kept of the paupers in each parish, with the amount of relief given ;
that this list should be publicly examined at a vestry meeting once
each year ; that no person's name could be added to it except at that
time ; and that no one else should receive relief during the year except
by the authority of one or more justices.^ This exceptional clause,
which was evidently designed to cover emergencies, practically placed
the supreme power in the dispensing of relief in the hands of the
justices. The result was the opposite of that which was intended.
The administration of relief was more lax than before, and the poor
rates rapidly increased.

In consequence of the increase of expenditure from this and other
causes, the idea of building poorhouses in which to care for the
poor, which we have seen was commended in the law of Elizabeth,
became again popular. Coupled with the idea of providing indoor

^ See Fowle, The Poor Law, pp. 60, 61.



maintenance only for paupers, was the notion that they could and
should be put at remunerative labor in such houses. In other words,
it was the workhouse rather than the poorhouse idea which began
to be advocated.

The first experiment was tried at Bristol, where by special act of
Parliament a workhouse was erected in 1697. The result was so sat-
isfactory that the example was soon followed by many other places.
In 1723 an act was passed which provided that parishes might, either
singly or in unions of two or more, erect, buy or rent workhouses,
and ordered "that no poor who refused to be lodged and kept in such
houses should be entitled to ask for parochial relief." Thus was in-
stituted, though wholly at the option of the parishes adopting it, the
"workhouse test," which was to become so famous through the re-
forms of a century later. The efifect in the parishes where it was
adopted was an immediate decrease in the amount expended for poor-
relief. The system was never generally adopted, however, and as
it lacked central supervision it soon fell into decay.

The same act (9 George I.) which made it possible for parishes
to institute the "workhouse test" also introduced the vicious system
of "farming out" the poor. Parishes were authorized "to contract
with any person or persons for the lodging, keeping, employing, any
or all such poor in the parish." From this farming of the poor the
gravest abuses sprang up in the poorhouses and workhouses. In-
human barbarities were perpetrated by the contractors on the help-
less inmates, especially on the sick and the insane, and these were not
entirely checked, though legislative restrictions were attempted, until
the last remnants of the contract system were finally abolished after
the reforms of 1834.

To correct these abuses and to introduce some other reforms,
the important act known as Gilbert's Act was passed in 1782, This
act extended the right of parishes to form unions for purposes of
poor-relief administration. Not only were adjacent parishes em-
powered to unite for the erection of a common poorhouse, or work-
house, but also for the common administration of relief. In these
unions, called "Gilbert's Incorporations," the farming out of the
poor was definitely abolished; and relief, both indoor and outdoor,
was to be administered by paid officers, called guardians, to be ap-
pointed by the justices, while to the overseers was left merely the
assessment and collection of the poor rates. The justices also were


to appoint visitors who, as honorary officials, were to be associated
with them in exercising supervision over the administration of reh'ef.
Unfortunately, the adoption of these reforms depended upon their
acceptance by a two-thirds vote of the property owners of the differ-
ent parishes. The system never became widespread, though sixty-
seven such incorporations were formed, some of which in form per-
sist down to the present day.

6. The Allowance System. — Along with these foreshadow-
ings of a better system, Gilbert's Act contained a menacing departure
from sound principles, in that it expressly stipulated that none but
the old and infirm poor, the mothers of illegitimates and children
yet unable to work, should be sent to the poorhouse. The able-bodied
poor were to be found work near their own homes by the guardians,
who were to collect their wages for them and apply the same toward
their maintenance, supplementing any deficiency by a grant from the
relief funds.

This is the beginning of that system of wage-subsidies, or relief
in aid of wages, known as the "allowance system," which for a time
threatened to pauperize England's laboring classes and ruin her
commercial and industrial supremacy. Its origin was undoubtedly
in the humanitarian tendencies of the time ; but it represented a
natural reaction from the barbarities connected with the farming out
of the poor in the poorhouses and the cruelties connected with the
enforcement of the law of settlement. It may seem now to us a false
humanitarianism which would dictate that the State find employment
for those who were out of work and supplement low wages by a
grant from the public funds ; but to those who were then interested in
the elevation of the laboring classes, the liberalization of the Poor
Law seemed the natural way of accomplishing their end. They
could hardly have foreseen the disaster.

The system of allowances reached its culmination in 1795 when
the Berkshire magistrates inaugurated a plan of relieving, out of the
poor funds, all poor and industrious families whose income was
judged insufficient, the amount of the allowance to be regulated by
the price of wheat and the size of the family.^ Though never ex-
pressly sanctioned by specific legislation, the example of Berkshire
was quickly followed by the whole country. The rapid spread of
the Berkshire plan shows the temper of the time ; but it was certainly

^ See Fowle, The Poor Law, pp. 65, 66.


facilitated by Parliament legalizing, the next year, outdoor relief to
the able-bodied, and that in aid of wages. The Act of 1723 which
permitted parishes to establish the "workhouse test" in giving relief,
was formally rescinded, and it was expressly stipulated that refusal
to enter a workhouse should not be a ground for withholding relief.
The only test of destitution was the opinion of the justices as to
whether the income of the family was sufficient or not ; and what was
not earned in wages the justices usually made up in relief. The
country could hardly have gone further in making the obtaining of
relief easy and its administration totally indiscriminating.

Meanwhile, pauperism increased enormously and the poor rates
even more rapidly. In 1783 the amount expended for poor-relief
was £2,004,238; in 1803 it was £4,267,965; and in 1818 it reached
its maximum in the sum of £7,870,801, the population of the country
being about 11,000,000.^ The per capita taxation for poor-relief
in 1818 (13s. 4d.) was six times as great as it had been in 1750
(2s. 2d.). Moreover, the material condition of the poor was not bet-
tered, for wages fell rapidly, inasmuch as the pauperized laborer de-
pending for his support upon public relief, could afford to underbid
the independent laborer. Most of all were the poor affected morally.
The laboring classes, if we can believe the witnesses of the time, lost
their independence, and with it their efficiency, self-respect, and self-

Just what proportion of the enormous increase of pauperism,
which took place in England between 1780 and 1820, must be as-
cribed to unwise methods of relief and what to the industrial and
political changes of the time, including the Napoleonic wars, it is
impossible to say. But that lavish relief unwisely administered was
the principal cause of this increase was the belief of those who, like
Malthus, investigated the actual conditions at the time ; and this view
has never been successfully controverted. It may at least be ac-
cepted as certain that the vicious system of public relief immensely
facilitated the pauperization of England's working classes at a time
when their economic situation was least fortunate.

The attacks of the economists, led by Malthus, upon the system
gradually aroused England to the danger of the situation and slowly
prepared the way for the sweeping reform of 1834. Feeble efforts
at reform were, however, made before this. In 1817 a committee

^ See Fowle, The Poor Law, p. 7^.


was appointed by Parliament for the investigation of the Poor Laws.
An able report was made; but all that came of it was the passage
of the Select Vestries Act (1819). This introduced the innovation
of associating with the Poor Law officers a local elective body which
had the decisive voice in the administration of relief. Further fa-
cilities also were provided for the building of workhouses, and more
discrimination was urged upon local authorities in the giving of
relief. Such was the state of affairs when in February, 1832, a
second royal commission was appointed to investigate the practical
workings of the Poor Law.

7. The Poor Law of 1834. — The report of this commission was
published in February, 1834, and contained the most startling dis-
closures regarding the abuses connected with the whole system of
relief. Into the evidence cited by this deservedly famous document,
which still merits the attention of students of poor-relief, we can not
enter ; but it gave ample proof of an almost unbelievable state of cor-
ruption on the part of both the recipients and the givers of relief.
The report had a profound influence upon Parliament, and a bill em-
bodying practically all its recommendations known as the "Poor
Law Amendment Act," was passed by an immense majority.

The report of the commission advocated no new principles of
relief. Its famous formula, "that the condition of the pauper ought
to be, on the whole, less eligible than that of the independent laborer,"
which it declared must be the fundamental principle in a system of
legal relief, was new in language only. The spirit of this principle
was embodied in the Poor Law of Elizabeth, to which the report con-
stantly refers as "the foundation and text-book of the English Poor
Law." Consequently, the Law of 1834 was concerned chiefly with
the organization of the administration of relief rather than with the
introduction of new principles of relief.

The main provisions of the new law may be summed up con-
veniently under three heads : ( i ) A central authority was created
in a board of three Poor Law Commissioners, who had extensive
powers over local authorities. Not only could this board issue
orders and enforce regulations as to the giving of relief, but it ex-
ercised also minute supervision over local administration through
inspectors^ who visited the workhouses and investigated complaints,
and through auditors, who audited the accounts of all local officials
^At first called Assistant Commissioners.


every half year, (2) The board of commissioners was to divide the
country into districts of convenient size, to take the place of the
15,000 parishes, as the administrative units of the rehef system.
Each district, or Poor Law union, as it was called, had an elective
board of guardians who were the responsible local authorities in the
administration of relief; and as executive organs each board had
one or more salaried relieving officers. (3) The guardians of each
union were required to provide and build at least one workhouse,
and all relief to the able-bodied outside was declared illegal, though
this provision was only gradually enforced. Thus was reestablished
the "workhouse test," the corner-stone of every wise system of
public relief.

This resume of the main provisions of the Poor Law Amendment
Act of 1834 shows that it was essentially a centralizing measure ; that,
aside from the illegalizing of outdoor relief for the able-bodied, it
accomplished the reform of the relief system by providing a central
authority which, through supervision, could secure uniformity and
efficiency in local administration.

8. Legislation Since 1834. — The board of Poor Law commis-
sioners, established by the law of 1834, was limited in duration to five
years. From the first a bitter fight was waged upon the unlimited
powers and authority of this central board, and, indeed, by the labor-
ing classes upon the whole reformed system of relief. But the
board was continued by Parliament in practically its original form
until 1847, when it was transformed into a ministerial department
responsible to Parliament. The desirability of consolidating vari-
ous branches of local government into one department led again, in
1871, to a further change, the establishment of the Local Government
Board, which has general supervision of all such matters as public
sanitation, public works, and poor-relief, and which has become now
one of the most important departments of the Government.

The powers and functions of the central board have remained the
same, save for gradual enlargement. Among these powers is that
of issuing orders for the carrying out of the intentions of legisla-
tion. These orders have the force of law, and, hence, are hardly
less worthy of note than acts of Parliament. Among the more im-
portant of them have been, the "Outdoor Relief Prohibitory Order"
of 1844, which forbade relief to the able-bodied outside of the work-
house, save in exceptional cases ; the "General Consolidated Order"


of 1847, giving exhaustive directions as to the administration of
relief, the management of workhouses, the meetings of guardians,
and the duties of officers ; and the "Outdoor ReHef Regulation
Order," regulating the giving of outdoor relief in cases where per-
mitted, especially in large cities.

Through the influence of Sir Robert Peel, in 1846, the law of
settlement was further modified by what is known as the "Irremov-
able Poor Act." This act forbade removal in cases of indigency,
if the person in question had dwelt five years in the parish. Later
acts reduced the period to one year of residence within the union and
so increased the number of cases of "irremovability" that relief in the
place of sojourn is now the rule.

In the law of 1834 each parish was to pay for the relief of its own
poor, while the common expenses of the union were to be borne by
the parishes in proportion to the cost of their own paupers. It soon
became manifest, however, that this was a clumsy arrangement and
unjust to the poorer parishes of a union. After several half-way
measures the "Union Chargeability Act" was finally passed in 1865,
making the Poor Law union instead of the parish the bearer of the

Online LibraryCharles Richmond HendersonModern methods of charity; an account of the systems of relief, public and private, in the principal countries having modern methods → online text (page 19 of 73)